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Alberta college to conduct safety audit of Whistler Sliding Centre

Coroner recommended action after death of luge athlete

Almost five months after issuing a request for expressions of interest, the Whistler Sliding Centre - owned and operating by Whistler 2010 Sport Legacies (W2010SL) - has announced that the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT) will be conducting a top-to-bottom safety study of the Olympic track.

The safety audit is one of the recommendations made by the B.C. Coroner's Service following an investigation into the death of Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili on the eve of 2010 Olympic Winter Games. The audit will look at design, track speeds, placement of crash barriers and other protective measures.

W2010SL has complied with all of the coroners' recommendations, which included this safety audit. Because only a handful of companies around the world are involved in sliding track design and construction, they opened their search to colleges and universities as well.

SAIT, which is based in Calgary, will oversee a trajectory study on the track. A three-dimensional scan of the Whistler Sliding Centre with ice on the track has already been completed, to be followed by a scan of the concrete surface. SAIT and its partners will also study all in-track accidents, as well as the events that led to the death of Kumaritashvili during a training run on Feb. 12, 2010 - just hours before the Opening Ceremonies of the 2010 Winter Games.

The audit will assist W2010SL in making any changes or modifications to the track design, as well as safety systems for course workers, athletes and spectators.

"Experts in sport, construction, safety and trauma will study the track using the latest technologies and analysis techniques," explained Dr. Alex Zahavich, SAIT's Director of Applied Research and Innovation Services.

"The analysis will assist WSL in identifying whether any modifications could or should be made to the track to further ensure the safety of all users."

While SAIT is heading the research, the consortium of experts includes Bromley Technologies Ltd., Terra Pacific Surveying, Design Dialog, UBC, Synaptic Analysis Consulting Group, CAPE and MacKenzie Consulting.

"People are working on this all over the world," said Julie Wengi, director of operational support for W2010SL. "The group doing the trajectory modelling is based out of the U.K. The project managers are in Calgary. Obviously UBC is in Vancouver, as is Synaptic Analysis, which is doing the trauma study. We've brought together a number of different experts in the field that are working remotely on the same project.

The study is expected to be complete by fall of 2011, giving W2010SL several months to make changes.

"The timelines on this are particularly short," explained Wengi. "We wanted to make sure that if there are any things that need to be changed that we have a few months in which to do them... before the next sliding season. The ice goes in at the end of October."

The Whistler Sliding Centre is the fastest track in the world for bobsleigh, skeleton and luge, and athletes can experience over five G's - five times their body weight of downward pressure - on some of the corners. Although the track designers said the top speed would be around 135 km/h, the top recorded speed is 154 km/h, which is well above the seven per cent tolerance expected in course design.

Kumaritashvili, 20, was taking a training run on the course when he appeared to lose control coming out of Turn 15, which sent him into the long curve at the bottom of the track at the wrong angle. He exited that corner late, slammed into the opposite wall and was catapulted off the wall into a steel pillar, which killed him instantly.

Track workers put up boards and reshaped the ice on sections of the track before the Olympic competitions. The luge start was also lowered to keep speeds down.

Among other things, the investigation looked at the number of training and qualifying runs that athletes are given - Kumaritashvili had limited experience on the track - and the design of the sleds themselves. Kumaritashvili's sled appears to have flexed, bouncing him off the course instead of shattering, as they are designed to do.

The Georgian government and Kumaritashvili's family have argued that Kumaritashvili made all of the Olympic qualifying standards and was experienced enough to compete. If he made a mistake, they argued, it should not have resulted in his death.